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Why is fighting on the decline in the NHL during the 2011-12 season?

Greg Wyshynski
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The last week has been a useful snapshot of the muddled fighting debate in the National Hockey League.

Progressive hockey veteran Jimmy Devellano of the Detroit Red Wings wants to abolish it; fellow progressive hockey veteran Brian Bruke of the Toronto Maple Leafs thinks it's essential to the rat-proofing of the NHL.

Columnist Howard Herman wants it banned for the sake of player safety; John Scott of the Chicago Blackhawks wants more fights and the instigator rule dropped, because "it's increased the amount of dirty hits and dirty plays. It's taken out the honor and respect for the guys."

Meanwhile, in the Washington Capitals' victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night, Matt Hendricks attempted to answer that timeless riddle of fighting's affect on a game's momentum: His fight win over Craig Adams was cited as a spark to his team in a frequently tedious 1-0 win. "When Hendy makes that good fight for us it just pumps the guys up," said Jason Chimera, who scored the game's lone goal after Hendricks' fight.

The debate rages about fighting in hockey, but here are the facts: It's down this season.

According to Kevin Allen of USA Today:

Last season there were 697 fighting majors in the first half, and this season there were 519. Twenty-one of the 30 teams have had fewer fighting majors than they had at the midpoint last season.

Last season 252 players had at least one fight at the halfway point, and this season there were 213 players.

So what's caused this decline in hockey pugilism?

First off, here are the current numbers from HockeyFights.com and their projections for the season:

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You can see where the trends are headed. The current pace puts the number of fights, games with fights and games with more than one fight at their lowest levels since the second season after the lockout, when teams were loading up for speed rather than truculence thanks to the rule changes.

The decline this season can be attributed to a few factors:

The Changing Responsibilities of the Hockey Fighter

One of the great myths of the fighting debate has been that there are 5-minute-a-night goons populating every roster in the NHL. This was true a decade ago, but the role has changed: Now, even the heavyweights are being asked to do more than police the ice.

If you can't be more than a one-dimensional player in the NHL, then you're not going to be in the NHL. Greenwich Time and writer Michael Fornabaio offered an interesting look at former NHL pugilists toiling in the AHL — where fighting is also down — including the infamous Micheal Haley and Trevor Gillies of the New York Islanders:

Haley, an ECHL call-up when he joined the Sound Tigers in 2007, worked his way up to AHL regular, earned an NHL contract in 2009 and has had NHL stints the past two seasons. He plays on Bridgeport's power play and penalty kill.

Gillies, sent down by the New York Islanders in November, works constantly on his game, even as he has been out injured since the end of that month.

"I spent $4,000 this summer working on my skating," Gillies said. "Ask some defensemen around the league, if I'm coming in on the forecheck, if I can hit like a ton of bricks."

Haley played seven games for the Islanders this season. Gillies has played three. At the midpoint of the season, the Islanders had 17 fewer fights than they did in 2010-12.

Which brings us to …

The Lack of Dance Partners

One of the reasons Burke cited for Colton Orr's demotion was "no dance partners" on most nights. He was the Leafs' designated fighter; that label still applies to some players in the league, but for the most part the role has been altered or eliminated on many rosters.

The St. Louis Blues have 60 percent fewer fights this season than last, because they have 100 percent less Cam Janssen, for example.

From USA Today, Don Maloney of the Phoenix Coyotes:

Phoenix's popular heavyweight, Paul Bissonnette, had eight fights at last season's halfway point and one by Monday's midpoint. He did open the second half Tuesday night with a fight against the New York Rangers' Mike Rupp.  "He has still played hard," Maloney said. "But it's the lack of takers. Paul is not going out there and grab (Detroit Red Wings star) Pavel Datsyuk."

Although it would make for great Twitter fodder …

Less Time For Tempers To Flare

One interesting theory put forth by NHL Network analyst Craig Button: Faster faceoffs mean less time for players to agitate each other to the point of fighting. "There is not a lot of lingering around. There is less time for tempers to flare," he told USA Today.

Supplemental Discipline

While Brendan Shanahan's DVR is probably overloaded with illegal and illicit hits every night, there's no question that the players have a sense that the NHL is policing injurious acts this season. (Whether they agree with that approach or not is another question.)

The fact is that when you have a League full of guys questioning how to hit each other, it's going to decrease the number of flash-point moments in which a fight is going to occur. And when those big hits do happen, the players know that the perp will more than likely "get his" from the League anyway.

The flip side of this? That there are still so many rat-like plays that warrant suspensions, which speaks to John Scott's call for the instigator to be dropped.

Finally, The Brain Injury Thing

USA Today didn't mention the concussion epidemic and the deaths to two active NHL fighters last summer. The dire warnings about head injuries, the absences from the lineup for players with concussions … it all ties into a larger trend of player safety that, no question, has changed the way some players approach the game.

Has it affected fighting? The numbers are down at a time when player safety warnings are at an all-time high. Perhaps that's a coincidence, perhaps not.

What's the majority opinion on fighting? Will the second half of the season, filled with tight playoff races, bring up the averages? Is this season an anomaly or part of a larger trend?

Bottom line: If fights are down it's because players aren't fighting. Not because of some draconian, forced legislation from the NHL to ban it. Its place in the game should be determined organically and through the generations.

Perhaps we're seeing that natural selection now. Or, perhaps, we'll be talking about its dramatic rise again in two years.

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